Stop the Clock

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

I hear London Underground have been monitoring their valued staff members’ loo breaks with a stopwatch. The unions are understandably unhappy. Hearing about these sorts of things reminds me of the freedoms that I enjoy in my job. Employers weren’t always so zealous about timekeeping, were they? Maybe I was lucky in my first job. In 1978, I was a naïve sixteen year old training it in to Central London from Upminster. There was a hard-drinking culture on the tele-sales floor, which manifested itself in lively banter and boozy lunch hours. As the office junior I was taken under the wing of the older staff and educated in the ways of London lunchtime culture. It wasn’t just our lot; all the pubs in Covent Garden were full of local workers at high noon, and there didn’t appear to be any rush to leave when your hour was up. Subsequent jobs I did weren’t so alcohol-fuelled – not at my level anyway – though it was still normal to spend a full hour in the pub. The bosses sometimes came and everyone mixed in. There was no-one waiting back at the office with a stopwatch. As long as the work got done, the bosses were happy. As a motorcycle courier in the mid-1980s I enjoyed the freedom of self-employment, and this was coupled with the double-edged sword of plenty of downtime. For those of us on the road, drinking was strictly restricted to occasional social gatherings at the weekend, or after work. Ordinary workers could afford to live in inner London in those days. When I passed the Knowledge in 1988 and went on the cab, drinking was totally out of the window. I no longer had workmates but I’d see my old Knowledge colleagues on the road or in the cafes. In 2001, I moved to Northampton for my first office-based job in sixteen years. I could see the culture had changed. There were occasional gatherings for leavers and birthday celebrations, but those of us who enjoyed a beer and a burger at lunchtime were looked upon as subversive. Ten years’ on and I started to feel guilty for ordering beer at a lunchtime gathering for someone’s birthday. I don’t think it was against the rules, but by the end of the decade only a hard-core few would do it. At least I still had flexibility of time, and a select few of us would spend lunchtimes in the pub away from the others. I firmly believed it was everyone’s right to take part in Wetherspoon’s Beer & Burger deal, and I still do. Zero-hours contracts were unheard of – though they undoubtedly existed in some form. Conversely, I spent ten years thinking how I could extricate myself from the contract I was on. I’d sold my freedom and I didn’t believe in the job I was doing. In moments of weakness I’d think wistfully about my old career as a cab driver, and when redundancy looked on the cards in 2010, I took the plunge and went back on the Knowledge. Driving in from Northampton by car at the weekend I reckoned it would take me two years. After four months I was surprised to be offered a re-test, and even more surprised myself by passing first time and walking out of Palestra with my second green badge. Less than a year on and I’m working as a Knowledge Examiner. My dream job, but one not without its frustrations. At the TfL induction on my first day, a fellow examiner articulated the question we were all wanting to ask, but were afraid to: “Are we allowed to drink at lunchtime?” We were told in no uncertain terms that we weren’t. We then found out we only got forty-five minutes for lunch anyway. I later realised that staff in other companies were in a similar boat, and the traditional British lunch hour had gone (maybe it’ll be re-instated when we leave the EU, but I somehow doubt it). It seemed people were afraid they’d be replaced should they even take the breaks they’re entitled to. The culture was now to sit at your desk and eat something green from a plastic box. Interestingly, cigarette breaks always seem to have been enshrined as some kind of human right, though those of us who didn’t take them were never allowed to have time off in lieu. When I left TfL I considered asking for all those ten minute breaks I was entitled to, to be backdated and paid as cash. But as we all know, you get little joy arguing with TfL. The culture used to be that you’d socialise with your work colleagues; within the workplace and at lunchtime. I came from a world where you’d chat in the kitchen, and go and sit on someone’s desk to drink your coffee. This wasn’t encouraged at TfL. Employees even had to arrange their own Christmas get-together. Evenings at the pub were rare because everyone lived in the outer suburbs. I had to accept that it was the end of an era. The culture of employee socialisation had declined and everything had become more pressured. Now back on the cab full time, I have to pay for my own breaks. I don’t need a stopwatch: I’m stricter on myself than any boss ever was. I award myself a strict hour for lunch and a half-hour coffee break. I appreciate my breaks and I appreciate my freedom, but I don’t half miss the pubs of Covent Garden.

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